published Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Olympics decision aside, wrestling thriving in U.S.

  • photo
    In this 2000 file photo, U.S. wrestler Rulon Gardner waves the American flag following his gold medal win against three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexandre Kareline of Russia at the Summer Games in Sydney.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Poll
Should the Olympics drop wrestling?

How many dreams died with the International Olympic Committee's announcement Tuesday that it planned to drop wrestling from its list of core sports?

"The sad thing is current high-schoolers that want to be an Olympic champion may not have that chance," said McCallie coach Gordon Connell, who has attended five Olympic Games as a videographer and won a World Senior Games wrestling gold medal in 2004.

Cael Sanderson, the former Olympic champion who brought his Penn State team to the Southern Scuffle Jan. 1-2 in Chattanooga, told USA Today that wrestling in the Olympics was akin to baseball's World Series or the NFL's Super Bowl.

"It's every wrestler's dream. It's like the World Cup of soccer," Sanderson said. "It's the greatest event. It's the most prestigious and premier. It's the very top of the pyramid, and it's only once every four years.

"There are hundreds of thousands of kids out there where if [dropping the sport] were to happen, they [no longer] have that World Cup of soccer."

Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, also told USA Today that Olympic wrestling is the anchor for the sport worldwide.

"It's very, very important to the strength of wrestling all the way down to the grassroots level," he said.

The bigger question is what trickle-down there will be or how quickly it comes in the United States, whether it's at the college level, which went through a blitzkrieg of dropped programs in the 1980s thanks largely to financial decisions tied to Title IX compliance issues, or high school.

"There will be ripples. The problem with a lot of kids in other countries is that [freestyle] wrestling is the lone style of wrestling and their only chance at glory," University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Heath Eslinger said.

In the U.S., folkstyle is the most familiar wrestling form. It is what's used in collegiate and scholastic programs.

"I think [the IOC decision] affects this country a lot less than others," Eslinger said. "We're the only country, and it's been seen as a negative, that we have folkstyle wrestling. Most [U.S.] wrestlers don't compete in freestyle till the end of their careers."

That doesn't mean he and other coaches, both high school and college, will stand by and offer nothing more than moral support.

"We definitely need to fight it, but there are some great things happening in spite of this latest decision," Eslinger said, noting that high school participation has grown by 40,000 in the past decade.

"Obviously we're not dying there. Wrestling is the sixth-most popular sport among high school boys," he said, "and since 1984-89 when we were dropping so many college programs, there are 95 new college teams across all levels."

And if one wants to consider finances, on a statewide level the TSSAA is operating its tournaments on a paying basis. The sport also is doing well on the collegiate level.

"Wrestling is among the NCAA's top five revenue-producing championships," Eslinger said. "The NCAA tournament has been sold out the past four years, and this year will make five in a row."

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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